Amidst a flurry of last-minute activity on August 2, the recess bell rang at the Capitol, and the House and Senate headed home for summer vacation until after Labor Day. This break is invaluable for advocates as well as legislators; it provides an opportunity to catch our breaths, examine what has happened, and gear up for the end of the congressional session this fall. It also provides an opportunity to educate our senators and representatives while they are home about legislation that impacts our communities.
The House and Senate have completed their work on the HUD spending bills, and the conference committee must now produce a final version. HUD may fare better in FY97 than in the last two fiscal years. Congress has expanded the overall pot of funds for domestic discretionary programs, so HUD will likely see an increase of $500 million or more next year. Both the House and Senate increased funding levels for public housing operating subsidies, severely distressed public housing, and Native American housing. Despite threatened cuts to the Community Development Block Grant, CDBG received the same amount as last year – $4.6 billion, and the HOME program was also level-funded at $1.4 billion.
However, HUD housing programs are still reeling from the 25 percent cuts since the FY95 rescissions, and some programs may be cut further in FY97. For the second year in a row, there will probably be no new incremental Section 8 assistance, which means no relief for the thousands of low-income renters on waiting lists around the country. Housing for the elderly and disabled may take cuts, as well as the Tenant Opportunity Program (TOP) for public housing resident groups. And Congress has extended harmful provisions affecting public housing and section 8, including: minimum rents; suspension of federal preferences; suspension of one-for-one replacement; and a three-month delay in reissuing returned vouchers.
These administrative provisions attached to HUD spending bills had been seen as temporary measures until Congress could pass a comprehensive public housing reform bill. As these reform bills move through the House (HR 2406) and the Senate (S 1260), advocates have been fighting to preserve the Brooke amendment, which caps rents in public and Section 8 housing at 30 percent of a tenant’s income to ensure affordability. It’s now up to the conference committee to negotiate a final agreement on the bills, and it looks as if the Brooke cap will survive intact for most tenants to whom it applies.
However, many other provisions that would potentially harm residents are still up for grabs. The House and Senate bills both deregulate and turn more decision-making power over to the local housing authorities, but provide very little opportunity for tenant input into PHA plans, especially demolition and sale of developments. The House bill excludes evictions from the grievance process – thereby subjecting tenants to arbitrary, often unfair, costly and time-consuming court actions. Proposed admissions rules would penalize prospective residents based on criminal activity that may be decades in the past. And an occupancy standard in all rental housing (public and private) of two persons per bedroom would erode Fair Housing Act protections for families with children and other protected classes. These are all issues local groups should raise with their senators during the August recess and in early September.
Increasing local flexibility is a mantra repeated not only in public housing. Companion bills introduced this session (HR 2086 and S 88) by Representative Shays [R-CT] and Senator Hatfield [R-OR] purport to empower local communities by enhancing flexibility in the use of federal funds. In fact, these bills allow federal funds from diverse programs to be combined in a way that could draw scarce resources away from intended low-income beneficiaries. At the same time, the “Local Empowerment and Flexibility Act” allows for the waiving of most federal laws, resulting in dire consequences for civil rights, labor, the environment, poor people, and the disabled – to name a few. The bills fail to provide for genuine public participation and accountability. A broad-based national coalition opposing the bills, Citizens for Sensible Safeguards, has tried to work with Hatfield to improve his bill, but his latest draft is no better than the first, addressing none of CSS’s concerns.
Looking ahead, a few other Republican “community empowerment” bills that are floating around could resurface in the next Congress, depending on what happens in the November elections. Senator Coats [R-IN] offers a “Project for American Renewal” (S 1904), which packages together a series of acts designed to promote volunteerism, charitable giving, school choice, homeownership, and two-parent families. Offsets to pay for the various programs would come from federal welfare funds, corporate welfare, and community development and housing funds. The proposal calls for reductions in CDBG from $4.6 billion to $3.3 billion, and elimination of the HOME program, currently funded at $1.4 billion. Apparently, Coats expects CDCs to better thrive through individual charitable donations – which would be tax-deductible – than with project-specific funding for affordable housing. Coats’ plan also calls for HUD to transfer its unoccupied single-family units to local governments, to be turned over to CDCs.
A bill introduced by Reps. Watts [R-OK] and Talent [R-MO], dubbed “the Community Renewal Project,” would replace Clinton’s empowerment zones with “renewal communities” closer to the original enterprise zone idea. To be eligible, jurisdictions would have to dramatically reduce regulatory and tax burdens on businesses. State and local governments could also request the waiving of federal statutes. Like the Coats bill, this one contains school choice provisions, incentives for low-income families to save, and a charity tax credit. Unlike the Coats bill, Watts and Talent do not suggest where the money will come from to pay for their proposals.
Senators seem to know little about the harmful effects some of these proposals could have, and need to be educated during the recess and upcoming session.
From the National Coalition for the Homeless
Congress Passes Sweeping Welfare “Reform” Legislation
By David Beriss
On August 1, Congress passed the most sweeping welfare legislation since the 1960s, which will destroy much of the federal safety net for the poor and effectively end federal efforts to combat poverty. President Clinton has agreed to sign this legislation into law.
The bill will end the entitlement to cash assistance and turn welfare over to the states in the form of a block grant. It will also place a five-year limit on eligibility for welfare and severely limit states’ ability to provide assistance to children whose families fail to overcome poverty within that time. States will be able to set a lower cap and thus hurry people off the rolls and into homelessness. This legislation will make huge cuts in the Food Stamp program, severely limit the ability of able bodied adults to get food stamps, and cap the shelter deduction, thus forcing families to choose between shelter and food. Congress has decided, in this legislation, to deny access to any federal means-tested benefits for people who have been convicted of drug-related offenses – including, ironically, substance abuse treatment programs. Congress has also decided to modify SSI disability definitions for children, potentially throwing as many as 300,000 children with severe disabilities off the rolls and making families choose between housing and care for their kids. This so-called reform will also deny welfare, SSI and food stamps for most legal immigrants.
It is clear that in the guise of welfare reform, Congress has passed a bill that will increase homelessness, leave children hungry, and force millions of Americans into deeper poverty.